My Stern Lecture to a Client

Sometimes I can’t sell a book to a publisher. Actually, a lot of times I can’t. Even after doing this job for 5 years and getting an estimated 5000 rejection letters explaining why the editor turned me down; even after my rigid filtering process where I reject at least 500 unsolicited author queries for every one that I decide to represent; even when I have become so smitten with a project that I am convinced the publisher will offer a seven figure advance and Spielberg will be on the phone next day begging me to make a movie deal; I still have projects I can’t sell. All agents do. Even the coveted celebrity New York agents who have daily lunches with the coveted celebrity executive editors. Whenever any agent is representing an unknown author, taking a risk, trying to sell a book based on the merits of the project, not just on the author’s celebrity status, there will be rejections.

And when I do sell a book, sometimes for a lot of money, it is usually after I have received 30 rejections from other editors saying: “it’s a really great book, but I just didn’t fall in love with it”, or “it’s competing with another one of our titles”, or “the author has too modest a platform”.

And authors can be even less realistic than I am. After all, they look at the bookstore shelves and see a lot of dreck. They read lots of literary novels that are all well crafted but have a feeling of being sort of the same. They see some really horrible exploitative celebrity memoirs. Really crappy social analysis by gas bag political pundits. And some of these book deals really are getting seven figure advances.

So now what I do just before I submit the project to the publisher is give my client this stern lecture:

“Today I am sending out your book. I believe in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with you for 4 months polishing the proposal, refining the concept, and (in my humble opinion) making it perfect.

“But you must be realistic. It’s hard to get books published these days. You should hope for the best but expect the worst. I have experience in these matters and will make sure that your book gets to the right editor at the right imprint. I don’t just send books to the same 10 editors and then give up on it. I will send it to all major and not so major publishers who would have an interest in your book. If I can’t sell this book, you can be assured that all avenues have been explored.

“If I can’t find a publisher, it doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good. Sometimes, most times, the decision to publish a book comes down to issues of marketing, not quality or aesthetics.

“But even though your book is good, there are also a lot of other good projects going around. Editors may look at 10 proposals a week or 300 fiction manuscripts a year. Most of them have been heavily vetted by agents. And most of them are publishable. In other words, there is lots of competition.

“You have asked me several times how much your advance will be. I won’t venture a guess on that because my estimates have been wrong so often. Sometimes I expect $20,000 and get an advance for $100,000. Sometimes I get an advance for $7,000, even from the big publishers. Times are tough for publishers just like for the rest of us. The big ones are owned by multimedia conglomerates who are putting a lot of pressure on the publishers to make a lot of money. So publishers have become skittish about big advances. As an agent, I probably can get a publisher to sweeten the deal a little. But publishers base advances on their calculation of sales. They always have a figure in their head of the maximum they will pay. My job is to find out what that figure is and try to find other ways of sweetening the deal when they won’t budge on the advance. I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.

“Don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of time and energy promoting your book. All those full page ads in The New York Times usually are focused on a very few name brand authors. The publisher really expects you to do the heavy lifting and to promote your own book. They used to send a lot of authors around on 7 city tours. They don’t any more. I have never met an author, no matter how successful, who was satisfied that their publisher promoted their book well. You might ask yourself what kind of added value you get from having a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing. It’s a reasonable question to ask. But the answer is complicated.

“I know you would give a great interview on Oprah, Fresh Air, or The Daily Show. And a lot of publishers will make contacts to these and other “A” list venues. But competition for this is fierce and these shows have their own criteria that are often hard to fathom. Again, hope for the best but expect the worst.

“And then there is the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail. I mean the call from Spielberg. Even though your novel would make a great movie or a tv series, it might not happen. There are a lot of “option” deals for books. Most of them are for very little money, and most of them never go beyond the option. Just like Oprah, movie producers have their own calculations that are not easy to comprehend. Does the book have the kind of 3 act structure that producers want. Will the character in your novel fit with a star who could attract financing? Would the subject of the book require so much resources for production that the film couldn’t make money? Has the producer gone into drug rehab and become unavailable for an indeterminate amount of time? Hope for the best, expect the worst.

“So now I’m sending out the book. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for that seven figure deal. But….remember my #1 rule: be realistic.”


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40 Responses to “My Stern Lecture to a Client”

  1. The Commonzense of Saint James Says:

    Wonderful info thank you.

  2. michele Says:

    I’m so proud that you are my agent, Andy. You rock. Totally. You just do.

  3. Martha Reynolds Says:

    Excellent post! I shared it on FB and Twitter. A must read for writers looking to be represented. Thank you!

  4. Sami Thompson Says:

    Stern? No, just direct. It’s exactly the kind of talk I’d want to receive from my first agent – no false promises, no baloney, just the facts, nicely frosted with truth and kindness.

    May I share this with my writing group? Naturally, I’ll credit you properly. We have several elderly members who are computer-challenged; I print writing-related posts for them, and list the url so the source can’t be forgotten.


  5. Heather Villa (@HeatherVilla1) Says:

    Hello Andy,

    Thank you for your authenticity! While writers often query agent after agent, the flip side to the publishing world is what you just described. I really appreciate this post. Realistically, the author, the agent and publisher must each “love” the manuscript. And, eventually, maybe even the readers of a the published book will love it too.

    Heather Villa

  6. Ani Says:

    Dear Andy,
    Great piece. Me too.proud of you.

  7. kittykelleysutton Says:

    I have a question. I have no agent and I enjoyed your article, however I am already published with a really good small publisher that I don’t want to change. I write Native American historical fiction mysteries based on heavily researched, almost unknown events that have gone unnoticed and have almost been forgotten. My series is Mysteries from the Trail of Tears, the books are Wheezer and the Painted Frog and Wheezer and the Shy Coyote. I am working on a third now. I give lectures locally on the aftermath of the Trail of Tears as well. My question is, what benefit can an agent give to someone like me? I would like to do more speaking engagements and I would want to explore film opportunities, but is that enough to attract a good agent? Thanks Kitty Sutton

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Kitty, that’s a good question and I’ll file it away for a future blog post. A good agent will try to match you up with the right publisher. It sounds like you already have done that. They will negotiate a contract for you. They can usually sqeeze a little more money out of the publisher and can modify the boilerplate language significantly to your advantage. This can be important when you are trying to revert your rights when the sales decline. They will also attempt to sell UK and international rights. Most agents have corresponding agents in other countries or work with international co-agents. They also work with entertainment co-agents if the book has film/tv adaptation potential. Agents will also work with you as consultants and allies. They will act as your agent in disputes with your publisher and evaluate whether your pubisher is doing its job. They can help you refine your idea for future project and can even do some editing. When your book is published, they can advise you on the promotion. They will manage rights and permissions requests. They can help you republish your out of print books as ebooks after your rights revert. Of course there are other agents who will only look for a publisher for you, negotiate the contract, take their commissions and very little else. Try to avoid those agents.

      • Kitty Sutton Says:

        Dear Mr. Ross: Thank you so much for that info. This brings me to another question. In my case would my query to an agent look different from an unpublished author? I guess what I mean is how does one approach an agent when she is already published? Also, please keep my email and when you are open for submission, I might like to discuss the benefits. Thanks Kitty Sutton

      • andyrossagency Says:

        Kitty, whether you are published or not doesn’t change the way you query agents. It’s always nice to know that other people admire your work, so you should definitely mention in the query that you have been previously published. I get a lot of queries, though, that tell me they are a “published writer.” Often that means that they were self published. I think that in the interest of transparency, one should say that.

      • Kitty Sutton Says:

        I very much appreciate your answer. It has been most informative. It is true that the title “published author” seems to have different meanings to the hordes of writers out there. My publisher is a small firm. They are not a vanity press. I knew that self-publishing was not for me. I don’t want to spend all my time trying to figure out how to get a book up on just to turn around and start giving it away. I know it works for some. I am just trying to figure out if I should think about getting an agent and if an agent is a good step in my writing career at this time. You have been very kind in answering my questions. Wado (Thank you in Cherokee) Kitty Sutton

  8. smartalek1 Says:

    “Criteria,” being plural, are hard to fathom.
    I was going to heap a small ration of abuse on you for this, but them remembered you are an agent, not an editor.

  9. S. Swan Thompson Says:

    Hi, Andy ~

    Members of my writing group (SWWC) ate your blog post up faster than my last batch of Sinful Fudge! I reminded those who still haven’t stepped aboard the Internet that they’re missing wonderful advice like this and more; hopefully, this will help inspire them to finally “get with it” and join us online.

    Thank you for giving me permission to share this with them. (After the meeting, everyone with Internet access received the url, in order to find you online; everyone “off the grid” received a printed copy, along with the url and a notation that the page could not be duplicated without your prior permission.)


  10. Sad Writer Says:

    Today was a tough day for me here, as I received another rejection for my second novel. Your clear-eyed post here helps to take away a bit of the sting, Andy — thank you for sharing it with the world.

  11. Says:

    I feel like a kid who wants to climb up onto your lap while yelling, “Tell me more, tell me more.” Thank you

  12. darkwriter73 Says:

    I like this article, and i don’t know why exactly. Perhaps i see myself number of few you mentioned that are realistic. Yet, all things are possible. Like the mid-aged father of 4 who works retail and is often distracted. Then again….

  13. TU Says:

    Useful post — it really helps to understand the process a little bit.

  14. Janet Clare Says:

    I loved this article and would be thrilled to have you for my agent.
    Janet Clare

  15. Lorraine Devon Wilke Says:

    Good piece. As an author who queried until my blood ran cold, then self-published with great satisfaction, and is now looking with trepidation at approaching the traditional route once again, I find your perspective bracing and illuminating. A reminder of how even the that route is fraught with unknowns and unpredictables. A good reminder…

  16. araneus1 Says:

    I find it interesting that the agent talks about, but does not list, what a publisher will do for an author?

  17. fletcherski Says:

    Reblogged this on Garrie Fletcher and commented:
    Some cold hard truths about getting published…

  18. Author advice | dedeecanjournal Says:

    […] […]

  19. Barbara Joan Grubman Says:

    Dear Mr. Ross, May I add to your already received ‘congratulations’ for your post about publishing. I get published a lot….LOL….in Letters to the Editor and also short non=fiction articles in local and sometimes not so local papers. My goal is the NYTimes, of course.
    Right now I am taking a course in writing fiction . It is on line
    Iowa University and a killer to to navigate.
    The best writing teacher I have ever had, and I hope to take other classes with her, is Hope Edelman. She is a beautiful person in all ways.
    How does one subscribe to your blog?
    Have a good day,
    Barbara Grubman e-mail…

  20. Richard McDonough Says:

    It is a tough fing business. Total subjectivity coming up against total subjectivity and the impulse to say no on the editor’s part, because yes can lead to making errors, losing money and having to find a new desk to sit at, can drive you nuts. I did the edotorial side of the desk for 14 years, did your flogging side of the desk another fourteen or so. Loved when it worked, hated it when it didn’t. Loved working with people who created something out of words, hated dealing with some editors who couldn’t function when their lips were chapped. Found a few committed, smart editors who were close to a joy to work with. Clearly a mixed bag but thrilling when the parcel was opened and there was a bound copy of a book I midwifed.

  21. Bulbul Says:

    Really enjoyed reading your article. It was good to see the other side of the fence where the grass looks green

  22. Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst: The Legend of A Confederacy of Dunces | Richard H. Harris Says:

    […] like this piece by Oakland, California literary agent Andy Ross entitled “My Stern Lecture to a Client” for two reasons. First, it dispels the myth that once you sign with an agent it’s all […]

  23. Joe Corso Says:

    I’ve been politely turned down so many times by literary agents and traditional publishers that I have given up sending out query letters. You would think that they’d take a moment to check out my books some of which have won awards and a few have even been best sellers.

  24. Susan Lynn Meyer Says:

    This all makes great sense. I just thought I’d say that I maybe am the one author who thinks her publisher (Random House) did a good job promoting her first novel (Black Radishes.) Maybe my expectations weren’t sky high. They got it sent out for all the right awards, got it reviewed in all the right places, etc. I appreciated it!

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Susan, I have to say that you are one of the few writers who thinks their publisher did enough for them. That being said, I think publishers do more than writers think. In this world, media is increasingly driven by celebrity. It’s very hard to get their attention. Best of luck in your vocation as a writer.

  25. csperryess Says:

    Thanks for this. Those of us who’ve been writing & submitting forever know this – but need to be reminded. Your post is an excellent reminder.

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